TYSONS CORNER, Virginia — You’re the Democratic candidate for governor in a red state. You’re trailing your moderate-to-conservative opponent by seven points among likely voters in the latest poll. To show your mettle you’ve agreed to debate in succession both the Republican nominee and the independent “maverick.” How to navigate these waters? Latch on to Mr. Popular of state politics and hold on for dear life.
Lt. Gov. Tim Kaine attached himself to outgoing Gov. Mark Warner, for better and for worse (or, one might say in this case, for tax and for spend), as he faced opponents in separate debates yesterday at the Hilton McLean. Kaine’s efforts against Jerry Kilgore, the Republican nominee and former attorney general, and Russell Potts, the erstwhile Republican state senator running as an independent, mean more to Democrats than just the Richmond state house: Is Warner a Southern anomaly or the beginning of a trend?
And if there were any doubts that national politicos are paying attention to this marquee race of a quiet political season, they were dispelled as Tim Russert, Meet the Press host, took to the podium to moderate the Kaine-Kilgore match. Kilgore would not agree to include Potts in the Fairfax Chamber of Commerce-sponsored debate, so Kaine and Potts held their “B Team” effort in a living room sized space in the Hilton basement.
In both venues Kaine presented himself as Warner’s heir. Emphasizing his theme for the day, Kaine rhetorically asked, “Is Virginia better off as a state after four years of the Warner-Kaine administration?” Playing a sort of vice president to a chief executive with a 76 percent job approval rating would normally be prudent. In Kaine’s case, he has little to recommend him but last year’s $1.35 billion tax increase, which he proudly touts as the “Warner-Kaine” administration’s hallmark achievement.
Acknowledging Virginia’s political leanings, Kaine repackages the tax hike as “budget reform.” Asked in both debates to name “Warner-Kaine” accomplishments that Warner wouldn’t have accomplished without him, Kaine only pointed to his procedural tactics in the Virginia Senate on behalf of “budget reform.”
In the short term, the first debate appeared a Kaine victory. Spokesmen for both campaigns predicted an on-message Kilgore and aggressive Kaine. Kilgore managed to connect seemingly unrelated points to his commuter-friendly transportation plan while Kaine was much more emotional and prepared to parry. Kilgore spokesman Tucker Martin made no apologies for his candidate’s talking points performance, pointing to his “consistent message.”
Russert managed to put Kilgore on the defensive over Roe v. Wade and his Republican affiliation with President Bush. Asked by Russert if he would sign legislation criminalizing abortion were Roe v. Wade overturned by a rapidly changing Supreme Court, Kilgore reaffirmed his pro-life philosophy, but refused to answer such a hypothetical. Then asked by Russert if he would veto tax increases, Kilgore quickly said, “Yes.” Russert shot back, “That’s a hypothetical,” and the crowd exploded in laughter. The nice Catholic boy from Buffalo has come a long way.
Later, Russert offered Kilgore a choice of identifying more with President George W. Bush or Gov. Warner in the wake of Hurricane Katrina — in other words, a test of loyalty to a leader out of vogue. Kilgore wouldn’t bite: “I support my president,” he said, though he added, as Bush himself has, that the response to Katrina “could have been a lot better.”
After both debates, University of Virginia Professor Larry J. Sabato, director of the Center for Politics and a leading authority on Virginia politics, told TAS that Russert extremely favored Kaine. Still, he said, “It was Kaine’s day in Kaine’s region with a Kaine audience.”
THE FOLLOWUP DEBATE WITH RUSS POTTS only confirmed the Kilgore camp’s spin. Before and after, Kilgore spokesmen said, “It should have been the Democratic primary.”
It was a liberal setup from start to finish. Ostensibly organized by a coalition of Virginia education groups, the debate room/closet and overflow room down the hall were full of ringers. (Even Sabato had some initial difficulty getting admitted.) And nearly all questions pointed toward the various ways in which the state can throw more money at education. Kaine and Potts eagerly competed for the mantle of who better spent education monies over the last four years.
What advantage this debate offered Kaine over Potts was anyone’s guess. Asked that very question, Kaine spokeswoman Delacey Skinner said, “The point was made very clearly that Jerry Kilgore is absent.”
For a man polling 5% or lower and who Sabato said will only likely draw people who don’t typically vote, Potts’s one contribution to the race is candor. Frustrated with Kaine’s repeated invocation of the “Warner-Kaine administration,” Potts finally said what no one else would: “I don’t see any mouse in your pocket.” Kaine, it seems, is going to have to win on his own merits.